Friday, October 31, 2008
"How's it going?" was the way one call started recently.
"Fine. Everything OK?" I asked.
"Yeah. Just wanted to see how things are going?" That's Elie code for "you talk, Ima." And so I talked about a national conference I coordinated, something about the car, something about the house.
How the new course we started at our Training Center is going, about general things. He was tired, he said, when I asked again if everything was okay and in the tired voice I heard frustration.
"What's wrong?" I asked again, and slowly the story poured out.
Essentially, as much as they are men, they are still boys. Most soldiers are on the same schedule, going home once every three weeks. The army understands that this is inconvenient for some, but impossible for others. Some families are dependent on their sons and when they go to the army, the family suffers terrible hardships.
One boy's parents are both elderly and disabled and without him in the house, they can't get out. So he has permission to go home every weekend to be with them. During the week, friends and other family members carry the brunt of helping these elderly people and on the weekends, when Elie and others come home to sleep and be pampered, this young man goes home to help his parents.
Another's family is in deep financial crisis. The army has given the soldier extra time so that he can work part-time to bring money in, arranged for loans and extra assistance. The list goes on. The army has counselors and the equivalent of social workers to assist the families and the soldiers.
Most boys are grateful for the exceptions made for them and honored to serve in a way that allows them to fulfill their obligation both to family and country. Often, they have matured early as a result of their home situation and the army simply adds that extra layer of responsibility and maturity that it brings to all our sons.
But some, one in particular in Elie's unit, views the army's leniency as a victory, something about which to brag. And the other soldiers, those who don't get to go home as often, are tired and annoyed by the pushing and bragging and, being what they are underneath, still young men grappling and changing and developing, one struck back.
No, not by hitting. In frustration, one of the soldiers went over, took the braggart's sheets, pillow and blanket, and threw them in the garbage. The message was clear - you aren't part of "us." The young man found his possessions and in anger, turned to the officers on base. It is their job to punish, and punish they have.
Like parents who ground their children, they ordered all soldiers to remain on base. All leaves canceled until the one who did it admits his actions. Exceptions were made for plans that had already been arranged and those extra cases in need, and this frustrated and angered the soldiers more.
Finally, last week, the officers decided to postpone the punishment to this week entirely - Elie's weekend home. Elie is scheduled to start the training he needs to lead the Basic Training course on Sunday. While within the base, the officers can cancel one group and switch it with another, once Elie leaves, he begins a new vacation pattern.
By holding him on base this last weekend, they might well have prevented him from getting any time at home at all. Elie complained to a higher ranking officer that he was being unfairly punished and that it would be almost impossible for him to stay on base, and still get to the southern training base on Sunday on time. The officer agreed, and ordered that Elie be released as expected. This went back and forth for some time.
For a few days, this anger and frustration simmered. The soldier who did this did not come forward and the officer who punished the soldiers stood his ground. Elie fell in the middle of this, wondering if he would end up going straight from the base to his next assignment. He hadn't been home in almost three weeks. Elie was frustrated and understanding.
He knows that one soldier deserves to be punished and they do not know which one. He also knows that he is leaving the unit and has little to do that can't be done by someone else. He has turned over his responsibilities and is turning in his gun. He wants to move to the next step, the next challenge. He wants to come home. It's hard for me to sit here, knowing I can't help him. I can't go and bring him home. I'll go, as soon as the army gives him permission to leave, but there is nothing I can do to help him.
This isn't school, where I can complain to the principal if the teacher is being overly harsh. This is Elie's first step into real life and he's handling it, though he is frustrated and annoyed. There are rules he knows they are breaking; giving him less sleep than he is entitled to. He could complain, but he hasn't and he won't. He's just waiting.
This week, the army discovered a tunnel that went from a house approximately 250 meters inside Gaza, under our security fence, and into Israel. A similar tunnel was used in the past to launch attacks, kidnap a soldier, and smuggle weapons.
For no good reason, was this tunnel built. The army destroyed the tunnel and during the operation, several Palestinians were killed (not innocent ones, but armed terrorists involved with the tunnel) and several soldiers injured. The Hamas government, duly elected by the people in Gaza, the government that admits launching rockets at our cities, holding one of our soldiers, and masterminding countless terrorist attacks against our cities, malls, buses and cafes...accused Israel of breaking the "relative calm."
The term "relative calm" is a misnomer. In the rest of the world, it means a temporary peace in which both sides cease attacking the other, hopefully while working towards a peace agreement and a more permanent solution to a conflict.
In the Middle East, for Israel, it means a rocket or two a week, rather than five per day. It means our having to catch an occasional bomber rather than one each day. It means knowing that our enemies are re-arming, storing missiles and weapons, planning further attacks. This one was imminent; the tunnel was almost ready. The army destroyed the tunnel and our cities were again attacked by rockets. More than 45 rockets and mortars were launched in a two day period; six soldiers wounded, including one seriously; six civilians, including children, were taken to hospital suffering from shock.
Elie's unit was put on alert. If the rocket attacks continue, they will be re-positioned near Gaza. This presents a dilemma to the officers on Elie's base. As Elie explained it to me, "this might be the last time we can go home."
Of course, he means something far different than what the words imply. What he meant was that during a conflict, a soldier doesn't necessarily get a regular weekend home once or twice a month. If they didn't go home this weekend, after not being home for three weeks, and if they are based outside Gaza, there is no telling when they will next have the opportunity to go home. At 9:00 p.m. last night, the officers decided to let the regular soldiers go home.
Elie and another commander had to wait until this morning. They are both leaving the g'dud (battalion) to go to training base in the south. If their units are repositioned, it will not change their assignment. They returned their guns, their spare uniforms and other equipment to the g'dud and signed out.
On Sunday, Elie will be issued another gun, be given more uniforms, and receive supplies from the training base. Today, five more rockets were fired at Israel.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Once again he'll spend two weeks preparing for the new soldiers, going over what he learned, only this time from the perspective of the teacher, not the student. After he welcomes these young men to the army, he'll teach them what he has learned. They will call him "Commander" and not Elie. They may not know anything about his family, where he goes when he comes home. They'll complain about him to each other. They might even assign a secret name (as Elie and his friends called one commander "Blondie" and another "Solomon") and Elie might hear the name, but not know to whom they refer.
Elie will force them to run, but he will likely run at the front of the group. He will teach them about shooting and the first time they see him shoot, they will be amazed because his gun has been calibrated to him and so he'll shoot with amazing accuracy. He's probably stronger and faster than they are right now, having spent the last 20 months of his life training and strengthening his body. That first time, he'll run only a half a kilometer with them, while he himself can easily run many times that amount. Even if he's tired, he won't show them.
He'll let them sleep only six hours, while he himself will likely sleep even less. He will teach them to respect the gun they are given, to make it a part of themselves. He will insist that they know where it is at all times, even in sleep. To make sure he succeeds in this lesson, he will likely try to "steal" a gun. If a soldier "forgets" his gun on his bed when he runs to stand in line to be inspected in the morning, Elie will hand out a punishment.
Elie will be counselor and trainer to these boys, but never quite a friend during this time. That will come later, not now. For some of the days, the army will take these boys on cultural trips, to teach them about Israel. Elie will accompany them on some of these trips, but unlike these other soldiers, Elie's gun will be loaded. They'll walk through the city of Jerusalem, but Elie will be watching around him. After so many in his unit were hit by a terrorist driving a car in Jerusalem, Elie will be even more alert.
On at least one of these cultural days, probably several, Elie won't go with his soldiers. Rather, Elie will leave this team and go visit each soldier's parents. There, he will explain, as Or once did in our home, what their son will be doing in the months to come. They'll ask him questions and he'll explain. So many questions, but also so many that won't be asked.
"Can I tell others what you are telling me, or is it a secret?" one mother might ask hesitantly, thinking of her son's grandparents and what they too would want to know.
"If it were secret, I couldn't tell you," Or had smiled and answered back patiently, when I asked.
I listened to Or describe what Elie would be doing and the types of things he would learn. After Elie finished basic and advanced training, he might choose or be chosen to take the Commanders course, and Or described what that would mean. And so it went, as Or explained what he himself had done for the last 12 months in the army, I understood that it was possible, perhaps even likely, that Elie would follow this or a similar path. And here is where we are today.
"Will you love our son? Will you watch over him carefully and tell me if he needs me?" No. I didn't ask Or that question and I doubt anyone will ask Elie. It seemed so silly. He wasn't a child and though I had no idea how fast it would happen, I knew those were the last days of his childhood disappearing and that soon he would come home the same and yet forever different. And here is where we are today.
I don't remember the questions that I asked Elie's commanding officer. Mostly, I am left with the memory that it was the first time since moving to Israel that I felt completely accepted as one of "them," one of us. To Or, I was another mother of one of his soldiers and the location of my birth (or that of my son), was not relevant. Elie was his, I was Elie's, therefore, I was accepted. Mostly, too, I remember the wonder of having this soldier in my home and thinking that in a year or so from now, Elie might be doing the same thing.
Elie is the practical one in the family and while I think of these other soldiers and their mothers, Elie knows it would be a waste of time to think too much on matters about which you have no control. So he focuses on how he'll move so much stuff back home and already I am calculating how I can help drive past his base and pick up as much as possible.
Last time, Elie arrived to the training base as a young 19-year-old leaving behind a mother filled with uncertainties, worries, pride and fear. Soon, he will arrive as a trained soldier (or as trained as a soldier can be without having actually gone into combat). Last time, he was excited and looking forward; I was anxious. This time, he feels challenged as he looks to the next few months, and I feel calm.
Last time, he arrived at the base in a new uniform, and was issued a new gun. He'd only fired a gun a few times during his pre-military academy training, but that was nothing compared to being given the responsibility, 24-hours a day, of having, guarding, and taking care of a tool of war. This time, he'll arrive again without a gun because he's leaving the g'dud (battalion) and so must return some of his equipment to them. When he arrives at the training base, he will be issued a gun that belongs in their inventory. Once again, he will have to calibrate it to his eye.
Last time, he was responsible only for himself and had to learn the importance of time. They accomplished this by restricting him, imposing time limitations on tasks. Five minutes to dress, fifteen to eat. Seven minute breaks and more.
Last time, his watch helped him keep up with the commander's orders. This time, his watch will set the pace of his unit and he will be responsible for teaching this sense of responsibility to others.
After meeting Or, I gained a sense of trust. He would watch out for Elie, he would know. This time, as a commander, Elie will be responsible for the safety, physical and emotional, of those the army gives him to train. And though he would never think to put it quite this way, in the next few months, Elie will take these boys and help turn them into men. Their mothers will wait for their first calls, the first time they come home wearing the uniform of Israel, the first time they bring their guns home. All that I have experienced in the last 18 or 20 months is about to begin again.
Many mothers and fathers all over Israel are thinking to themselves, in just a few short weeks, their sons will be soldiers. I would never attempt to tell them not to fear, not to worry. It is as natural as breathing to a mother of a soldier. A father recently wrote to tell me that his son was going in with this group and asked for my advice. How should they act, during these last few days and I wrote that he should follow his son's lead. Let him set the tone and the pace. If he wants to be alone, let him. If he plays with his sister just a bit more than normal, don't say anything. Let him leave easily and return safely. Let him not feel your worry, your fear, your need to be reassured. It is, I have always believed, easier to leave than be left behind but we can't tell them that. So let him leave easy.
I saved my tears that first day until after Elie had said his quick goodbye and after I'd driven away. I saved it until I got to my office and alone I sat and cried. I can't tell you anymore what was in my mind or why I cried, other than a longing for my little boy to come back...and at the same moment the recognition that there was no little boy left to come back. He'd already begun to change, even before he got that letter telling us he'd be going into artillery but the pace of the change from the moment he entered the army was so fast.
Elie had to go, had to grow and as he has grown, I am aware that he is so much more than I could have imagined he would be. Ultimately, much of that comes down to a gift given to him by the army. His faith and his personality were all his, but the army gave him a sense of time, of responsibility, a sense of self. It gave him a sense of what strength God put into his body, how he can push it, fine tune it, enhance it.
What Elie received from the army and from Or, his commanding officer, he will now give to others. And perhaps somewhere, there is another mother beginning her own journey, her own blog...
There is no ceremony, no great moment, just a gentle slide into a new world. He went in his direction without hesitation; I reluctantly went in mine and I tried all day not to think of where he was. Or, more importantly, I tried not to think of where he wasn't. From the time my children were born, almost without exception, I have known where they are. Perhaps not to an exact location, but close enough to know that they are within reach, within a short drive or call away.
Now enters a time when more often than not, I won't know where he is, what he is doing. I will have to trust that no news is good news, that he is OK. Elie called me around 6:30 p.m. - not quite as good as him walking through the door, but still a wonderful gift. He's fine.
He's wearing a uniform. He complained about the heat of Tel Aviv after the cool and wonderful air of Jerusalem's hills. They gave him boots and they are more comfortable than he expected them to be. They didn't have any undershirts, but he's got the 3 or 4 that he packed from home. They fed him lunch and dinner and there's a place to get snacks.
He has a place to sleep, some boys he knows from school and one from a neighboring town. Tomorrow he'll go to the base. No, they didn't give him a gun (I didn't expect them to). No, he doesn't know the rest of the schedule. All normal talk - so many questions I could ask, but won't. I'll take it one day at a time...for the next three years. Today is over. He's safe. He's fine. Tomorrow is another day....
My son is a soldier in the army of Israel. Why that makes me want to cry, I can't explain when it is something that I have accepted, something in which I feel pride. For now, the fear and worry that threatens to push the pride aside will be my personal battle in the next day and week and year. My son is where I have always wanted him to be, doing what he must do. It is something that Jews have been unable to do for thousands of years - to defend their land and their right to live here. My son is a soldier in the army of Israel.
-- Induction Day, March 25, 2007
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Elie answered right away.
"How's it going, sweets?" I said as I always do. Yes, I shouldn't admit to calling him "sweets" but I figure I've got a few years or more before he decides to actually read this blog and by then...he'll figure years have passed and he'll forgive me (or so I'm thinking).
"Fine," he said, and before I could say another word, he burst out with, "Ima, I want a jeep."
Now there must be a story there, I thought as I smiled and answered, "me too. Are you at the checkpoint?"
"I haven't been at the checkpoint in a few days." He'd told me about other things he was doing (working on the computer system, processing permit requests, etc.), but I didn't realize it was a constant thing.
"So, where were you?"
"Patrolling." Patrolling means in a vehicle. Ah...
"In a jeep?" I asked, it all suddenly becoming clear.
He laughed. "We went in a pool," he said.
"A pool?" Hmmm....I don't think you are supposed to do that with a car. Something about blowing the engine.
"Fast? In a pool?" Define fast, define pool.
"Well, a big puddle," he clarified "and Ima, your Honda wouldn't make it." Now, I'm pretty sensitive when it comes to my car...but I'm not going to drive it through a puddle the size of a pool to prove it to him.
"What happened to the car?" I asked.
"Nothing. Well, we almost blew the engine," Elie answered. Clearly that was about as close to heaven as a boy can get.
"What happened?" I asked, visions of the army coming and arresting my child for damaging army property (not that he was driving anyway).
Most of the time they did this, nothing happened, other than their splitting the water, sending it hurling in a massive wave in either direction. This was clearly the cool part. By high, Elie assured me, he meant almost to the height of my puny Honda, certainly the car windows.
One time, the time Elie thought was the most fun, the car actually stalled, but they got it started again. The pool was relatively deep and the water splashed so high as they drove threw it that it reached the height of the roof.
"It was so cool."
Yeah, it sounds like it was. I'm glad he was there. "I don't think you're supposed to be having so much fun," I said to Elie and heard him laugh again.
"Are you patrolling near the security fence?" I asked him. Maybe it was a reality check for me; I'm not sure why I asked.
Some, he answered, but the fence meanders up and down between the Arab and Jewish populations in the area, separating, dividing, securing. It prevents bombers who would simply have to walk a short 10 or 15 minutes in some places to get to the hearts of some large Jewish cities. Elie explained that to follow the security fence would take too long in some places so they also cut through the Jewish towns nearby. "We patrol inside also...like near the pizza store," he continued.
He was enjoying himself; enjoying the light and easy conversation and the chance to brag. How young men this age love to brag! And how important it is for a mother to let them! No, I won't give him driving safety instructions. First, because Elie is a very good driver and second, because Elie knows cars. These cars are built to be abused and there is no difference to the "jeep" whether the people in the car enjoyed the ride.
"You sure have it tough," I joked with him.
He was in such a great mood even better later when I spoke to him again.
"When are you going back on?" I asked him.
He didn't know. "They don't drive like that at night, do they?"
"Sure, why not?" he asked, but of course they don't...right?
There are days like this that end on a light and happy note and yet there is always that other element. As much as I want to think about Elie being carefree and easy, doing what boys his age were doing back when I was his age in the States, that isn't the reality here.
Elie wasn't with a group of young men, having fun, testing speed against water, driving just a little too fast, enjoying the wall of water their jeep sent hurtling to the sides. He wasn't on the beach wearing a tank top and bathing suit, and he won't return home this evening when the day of fun ends.
For all that the attitude and laughter was the same and though he called it a jeep, Elie was in an armored Humvee, loaded with sophisticated military equipment. Bulletproof, meant to withstand the roughest of roads easily.
He was dressed in combat uniform, his gun by his side at all times. Tonight, like most of his nights, if he goes to sleep at all, it will be at an army base until he awakens for his next round on patrol. His friends in the Humvee were all soldiers and for the most part, they were driving along a security fence that divides two populations who remain, more than 60 years into our country's existence, two peoples at war.
Elie still had a great day. He still laughed at the sensation of driving a jeep through a pool of water and feeling the water give way, and most of all, though the friends that were with him were soldiers, the comfort in this is that the soldiers that were with him...were friends.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
For all that I love this city and the wonderful community we have found here, the biggest trauma to my psyche happened when we moved to Maale Adumim just before the second Intifada. We live overlooking the beautiful hills of Jerusalem and a road, far down crawls gently down our mountain, across the valley, only to climb again and reach the heights of Jerusalem. When something explodes in Jerusalem, the first reaction is to call "all ambulances". Then, as the first arrives (The Ostrich Calls to Me) and assesses the situation, the horror is either confirmed and ambulances arrive in huge numbers, or scaled down to meet the need.
What this means for me, is that in the moments after an attack, often long before news has reached the television and radio stations, I hear ambulances. One means someone is sick or having a baby. Two means a car accident, even, perhaps, a nasty one. Three...three is the nighmare returned. Three is a multi-casualty incident - usually, almost always, a terrorist attack.
It has been many years of "relative calm." How I hate that term. What it means, in a very real sense is NOT that our enemies have stopped trying, but that we have gotten so much better at stopping them. It has been years since I saw three ambulances racing up the hill and yet I still tense when I hear a siren. I go to the window and count. One ambulance...hopefully a baby arriving. One ambulance...perhaps a broken leg. Hope it isn't anything serious and go back to life. Two ambulances...they should learn to drive more carefully. A few extra minutes and maybe it wouldn't have happened. I hope they'll be okay, and go back to life. There aren't three today. Breathe. Go back to life.
When I'm not at home, and even when I am, I check the Internet news sites regularly and often listen to the radio on the hour or half hour. The Sabbath provides a most welcome break. Twenty-five hours of quiet. Twenty-five hours where, unless I hear an ambulance, I don't think about something blowing up.
But as soon as the Sabbath draws to a close, my mind wonders what has happened in the last 25 hours. With Elie in the army, I don't feel comfortable closing my cellular phone and so it will beep if something happens. This week, it didn't beep. That's always a good sign.
I sat with my 8-year-old going over her weekly vocabulary words; I checked that my 12-year-old has gotten his backpack ready for school tomorrow. They've both eaten and my 18-year old has gone out with a friend. I loaded the dishwasher, cleared the dining room table and put away the Sabbath Challah board and cover till next week.
My time. I turned on the computer and began to surf the news channels. I check CNN to see what has happened in the world; I check Israeli sites to see what happened here. Thankfully, the police officer wounded in last week's terrorist attack (in which a young Palestinian stabbed the officer and murdered an 86-year-old man), is doing much better. Arabs attempted to enter a Jewish village on the Sabbath, and these items catch my eye:
IDF forces apprehended a 17-year old Palestinian who arrived at Hawara checkpoint, south of Nablus, carrying a pipe bomb on his person.
Terrorists threw three firebombs at soldiers near the village of Azoun. The soldiers were unhurt.
The village of Azoun...again. The soldiers...Elie's unit. The news already tells me that no one was hurt and my brain explains to my heart that had something happened, we would have heard long before I loaded the dishwasher, long before I opened my computer. My brain continued to explain, moving to other topics of interest, things I should do this coming week. I have to pull out the winter coats; the nights are starting to get cold. I need to buy another blanket. The economy.
It was at that point that my heart faded out and began a discussion with my fingers. Doctors will tell you that the fingers are controlled by the brain, but mothers know differently. Fingers listen to the heart as much as the brain, and often even more so. My brain droned on about the upcoming elections and then returned to the issue of the economy as my fingers picked up my phone and pressed the necessary buttons to call Elie.
He answered quickly and whether my brain kept talking or not, I cannot say, for all the ears caught was the sound of his voice. Yes, he says, it happened; everyone is fine. He updated me a bit on what happened. Several Arabs threw firebombs and paint on army vehicles. No one was hurt. People were ordered to stay in their homes while the army searched. No one was hurt - that's the main thing.
We talked about several family issues. Elie gave his opinions and comments on each thing and it felt good to talk to him, to make him a part of things that are happening here. We're renting a house which is in very bad condition, but the owner (like many of the absentee landlords here) wants to raise the rent (without actually doing anything to fix the place). So we are thinking of moving nearby where we would actually pay less. It's a smaller house, but with three kids living most of the time out of the house (married, army, hesder), we could deal with that. It means Elie and his 18-year-old brother sharing a room when they come home.
Elie was fine with that and made suggestions about things we could throw out or consolidate. He told me that he could request vacation time to help with the move, "combat soldiers never use up all their vacation days."
We talked about the family cars, about work, about the economy. Nothing particular and everything specific. He told me that the rain had triggered security fence alerts that the soldiers had to go check and he told me that the command post was concerned when it started to rain really hard. They called to check one position to see if they had the necessary rainwear. The soldiers said they had what they needed, but that it wasn't raining.
The command post told the soldiers - put on the rain gear...the rain will be there in a few minutes and sure enough, within 5 minutes, the rain arrived at that outpost as well. It didn't rain here over the weekend. That's common. Maale Adumim sits just to the east of Jerusalem, one mountain over. Between us, there is a deep valley. But the weather here is often very different, even from Jerusalem. We are just on the edge of the desert, our nights are cool and our days dry and hot.
Often, it will rain in Jerusalem and we will get a few drops (if that). Today was no exception - it rained long and hard where Elie was; not at all where we were. It was probably one of the longer conversations we've had over the phone in quite a while. He was about to go to sleep - had 8 hours before he was expected back on duty. We finally said our goodbyes so he could go rest.
My fingers closed the connection as my heart turned to my brain, "Now, where were we?...ah, yes, the economy...."
Friday, October 24, 2008
I had to go to my client in Netanya yesterday and so I asked Elie if he wanted anything. He had forgotten his PSP (Personal/Portable whatever Sony PlayStation) and asked if I could bring that...and some frozen ice tea.
"Do you want some cookies or brownies?" I asked, calculating if I had enough or had to start baking a new batch.
"Sure," he said.
"What about Doritos? I have an unopened bag."
"No," he said, "that's ok. Could you bring another bottle of ice tea; the one with the green cap?"
So, I popped two bottles of ice tea into my freezer, checked the cookie/brownie supply, and put his PSP into the bag for the next morning. I had to go to the post office before leaving for Netanya, and as I passed the bakery in the mall, I remembered how much Elie likes a particular pastry.
So...I got a bag of those. Then I thought of the other guys there, and pulled another bag from the shelf and filled that with a variety of other pastries. They looked really good. It's a long drive to Netanya, a long day sitting in front of that computer, a long drive home. I took another bag and popped in three more of Elie's favorites (which became Elie's favorites after he stole them from me...because they are mine too) for me.
I got to the checkpoint, handed Elie the bag with the PSP, the brownies/cookies and the ice tea. Then I handed him the bag with his pastries in it. He opened it right away and smiled, "wow."
Then I took the second bag and said, "these are to share with the others here." He smiled, I gave and got my quick "Ima-I'm-in-front-of-the-guys" peck on the cheek and left to return to the main highway, first driving through a smaller secondary checkpoint that leads back past Elie's base before circling around to the highway. Traffic through this checkpoint is mostly restricted to those coming to and from the base, and those going to the nearby town. Others are questioned and either let through or not. Elie called ahead this time, as he did last time - my mother, gold-colored Honda Civic, let her through.
As I approached the small checkpoint, I unrolled the window, took my last bag of three pastries and handed it to the soldiers who were sitting there, "it's ok," I told them, "I'm Elie's mother."
They took the bag, but I wasn't sure they'd eat the pastries. I called Elie, "call them and tell they can eat the pastries."
So, today, Elie sent me their thanks. There are many types of pastries in Israel - hundreds, perhaps more. There are also "burekos". I don't know if that is a Hebrew name or not - it's a dough-covered pastry containing potatoes (if they are square), mushroom (if they are thick, small triangles), cheese (longer, bigger triangles), or spinach (circles).
The pastries I handed to the soldiers were triangles, thick and small. One thought it was mushroom until he bit into it and was happy to find that this one was filled with sweet chocolate that oozes into your mouth as you bite it. It's a surprise when you expect the non-sweet (but still tasty) mushroom mixture.
"Ima, the guys say thanks," Elie told me, and so the smile. There really is so little we can do for them.
Another thought crossed my mind - this morning, as I often do, I drove my elderly neighbor to the synagogue on my way to driving my younger daughter to school. It doesn't even count as a favor because the only "special" part I am doing is pulling the car to the side of the road. I signaled him when I saw him come out of his house, ready to make the long walk up the hill. My daughter had not yet come out of the house, so I explained that I had to wait for her, but would be happy to drive him after that.
He smiled, thanked me, and told me that my daughter often comes to visit his wife. This was the first that I had heard of this. Drawn in by their young granddaughter (my 8-year-old loves babies), my daughter has visited and sat with this man's wife a few times. I asked my daughter about it after my neighbor left the car and my daughter confirmed that she'd gone there to visit.
"She gave me melon," Aliza explained. I felt a quiet sense of gratitude that at some point when Aliza must have needed to reach out or have some conversation, this woman cared enough to sit with her and treat her to some melon and a drink.
That's what I did for the soldiers - I gave them a small treat. They probably won't tell their mothers (as Aliza didn't tell me), but it was a moment that gave them pleasure. Thinking of the soldiers biting into the chocolate pastry and suddenly realizing the joy of that bite makes me smile. It is very much what Israel is all about - you do for my son, I'll do for yours.
I'll pass through a checkpoint and wish your son a Shabbat Shalom (a peaceful sabbath) and, if you can, please wish Elie a shabbat shalom for me.
Shabbat shalom to all the soldiers of Israel - this week and every week. May your days be filled with safety...and chocolate pastries that make you smile. You are most welcome for the pastries, and thank YOU for all you do.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Last rotation, in embarrassment for putting him in a position of having to choose between two rights (Two Rights Don't Make a Wrong), Elie’s Magad (Commander of the G’dud) told him that Elie would have his choice come November. Well, November is here. Elie was asked to come to an interview to be a Commander of the Commanders course. He told me the interview went very well and that he was surprised when they showed him the list of recommended options he was given after having completed the Commanders course.
For one thing, they recommend officer training for Elie. I asked if Elie wanted this. It’s a big responsibility, but also a big commitment. He would have to agree to stay in the army another 16 months and he’s not sure he wants to do that. He sees his sister and brother-in-law (who elected to not serve in the army in favor of long-term learning). He sees his brother (who has elected to enter the program known as Hesder, which combines service and learning and will therefore only serve about 18 months in the army), and he wants begin a life after the army.
The interview went well and they said they would let him know. A few days later, his Magad came into the room and told Elie that they were not sure it would work out because they prefer to have a commander assigned to this task for two rotations…and during the second rotation, the female soldiers Elie would have been assigned previously will be eligible for the Commanders course.
The Magad is checking to see whether there will be female soldiers assigned to his units during this incoming draft in November. If not, Elie could be assigned the basic and advanced training groups, fulfilling the army’s need, and Elie’s. The nice part was that the Magad assured Elie that no matter what happens, this has everything to do with Elie’s preference not to command a unit with female soldiers, according to his religious requirements, and nothing to do with any limitation the army sees in his abilities.
If that does not work out, the options are still open for other positions. So, in short, we are, once again, back in a holding pattern for knowing what Elie will do in the coming months. If Elie does not go to the training base as a commander for a training course, he’ll be back into training with the artillery unit for some of the time and to a checkpoint or the northern border for other periods of time.
I asked him when he would know and he told me – as with all things – when the army wants to tell him and perhaps not much more than a few days before the decision, whatever it may be, is implemented. There is less of the unknown here. We’ve sampled most of the options already and know what they involve. He’s been on the border with Syria and the border with Lebanon and Egypt. He’s been in the desert and even in the snow. He’s been in the cold and the hot; the wet, the humid, and the incredibly dry. He’s been in training, he’s taken courses, and he’s been on the checkpoints dealing with real and potential danger for months now.
In short, we (Elie and I) have become seasoned travelers on this path. He has his tasks and I have mine. His is to be a soldier, a commander watching out for his troops, and mine is to be a mother of a soldier, sharing moments of pride and worry and knowing that Elie and I are, as perhaps all human beings are, subject to the preferences and decisions of forces greater than ours. Whether man or God, chooses our paths, it is for us to adapt, to make the best and to find the best in all that we do. What will tomorrow bring for Elie…once again, we await tomorrow to find out.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Elie's unit guards around several Arab villages. Two recent incidents were the topic of our discussions as I drove Elie back to base this morning. Last night, Arabs from Azzoun threw a firebomb at an Israeli vehicle, lightly injuring the driver, who was treated at the scene and then taken to the hospital. I was curious about Elie's response that today things would be quiet.
"They won't be allowed to cross the checkpoint today. Except the doctors." Humanitarian reasons aside, the Arabs from Azzoun will not be able to cross into Israel.
In one incident, an Arab approached Elie recently and asked.
"Why can't I go in?" he asked.
"Because your neighbor threw a rock at an Israeli car," Elie answered.
"Which neighbor?" the man questioned.
"You are asking ME which of YOUR neighbors threw the rock?"
Entrance to jobs, hospitals and shopping in Israel is not a right, it is a privilege that comes with responsibilities and the simplest of these responsibilities is to act in a reasonable way. Israel has withdrawn from most of the Palestinian cities, leaving them in charge of their own social and even security-related issues. Elie’s answer was direct and obvious – meet your responsibility; be your brother’s keeper; prevent your neighbor from launching violent attacks against us, and you can enter our cities, our malls.
Even if you don’t, we’ll still let you enter our hospitals, because these are for humanitarian reasons, but we will take a few minutes to confirm you are a doctor, to check your ambulances.
Stop the violence, and we won’t have to do these checks; stop the terrorism, and you can enter our malls and cities. Stop your neighbor from throwing rocks at our innocent civilians, and neither your innocents, nor ours, will suffer. Yesterday, your neighbor threw a rock or a firebomb and so today, you will not go to work. If that bothers you, stop your neighbor today, and you can go tomorrow.
Monday, October 20, 2008
The commander of the platoon at the checkpoint was named Uri Binamo. Something must have made him suspicious because he ordered his men to take cover, approached the taxi, and ordered the passengers to get out of the car. The three Palestinian men inside complied with the order, but after exiting the taxi, one of them lifted his shirt to reveal a 10-kilogram suicide belt. Before anyone could react, the Palestinian detonated the belt, killing himself, the Palestinian taxi driver, a second passenger in the taxi and Uri.
Uri's bravery, in ordering his soldiers back, saved their lives, though several were hurt. Recently, friends and family remembered and honored Uri's memory. For those who never knew Uri, all we can do is remember that the checkpoints are there for a reason. An investigation into the incident revealed that the bomber planned to target an event hall used by children during the upcoming Chanukah holiday, and that a second Arab killed in the blast had planned a bombing as well. His friends remember Uri, and so should we.
Friends Remember Soldier who Stopped Attack
Friends and family held a large rally in memory of a fallen soldier recently. They gathered to honor and remember Lt. Uri Binimo, almost three years after his death in 2005. Binimo was killed at a checkpoint near Tulkarem by a suicide bomber. Banimo spotted a suspicious vehicle approaching the checkpoint and told his fellow soldiers to take cover while he investigated. In the terror attack, three other soldiers were wounded, two seriously and one lightly. Binimo was killed instantly.
Binino's sacrifice saved many lives, investigators concluded. Comrades spoke of him as the most loved platoon commander in the battalion, who brought a sewing machine to his base in order to repair his soldiers' torn uniforms.
Following the funeral, Binamo's family remembered him as a child who loved flowers and hikes around Israel with his family. They said that he enjoyed every minute of his military service. "He knew that the area of Tulkarm was the most dangerous sector, but he was determined to reach a goal," Binamo's father said. "This was a boy who would use his leaves - instead of going home - to travel around the country to his soldiers' houses to check and see that everything was alright. His soldiers simply loved him in a remarkable manner."
"We, as parents, as people to whom the country is often more important to them than their own private house is, understood that this could happen, but we would never have wanted this," said the parents, explaining that in their house, helping the community was a basic value.
He thought about it and said he'd really like to go to the water. He'd missed our summer vacation. He was in the army while we went kayaking, swimming, wading, and barbecuing through the north. This was a chance to do something with him.
He chose the north, the Sea of Galilee, which he loves. We drove there today, drove the car down close to the water as so many other vehicles had done the same. This is actually a sad thing, yet another sign that the water is so horribly depleted. Where once you parked by the road and climbed down a short distance to the water, now you have quite a distance to carry packages and towels and chairs and such.
I went in the water with my three youngest children while Elie and his father got the barbecue going. Once it was started, Elie joined us. He complained about the cold and we called him to be brave. Elie splashed his youngest brother and in turn, his younger brother began to try to swim away, out of reach.
"He's the one who's dry," I called out to Davidi. "Splash him back." I moved closer as Elie continued his assault and Davidi contemplated retreat.
"Like this," I said as I began splashing Elie. Elie, of course, turned to splash me, but really, what was the point, as I was already quite wet. Wet and acclimated to the water, Elie joined us and swam while I returned to shore to give my husband a chance in the water.
We munched on all manner of meats we had barbecued and had a wonderful time. We left as it was getting dark, just watching the sunset as we loaded the cars and drove south. We arrived about 30 minutes before Elie's cousins and grandparents came to visit. My nephew is in the artillery division as well. He and Elie talked - joking at times, appearing serious at times. I love seeing them together and yet it makes me even more aware of a world I do not know and can never enter.
Yair was released from the army today; Elie goes back tomorrow. It's hard to get them together but we succeeded tonight. They are very different in appearance and yet both are tall and strong and so incredibly handsome and for tonight, they were nothing but cousins - each picking on their younger brothers, each laughing and having a good time.
It was great having Elie home for these past few days, at a time when we could be home as well. He spoke some about the next rotation and where it might take him. We spoke of Iran and the north, of Gilad Shalit, still held prisoner in Gaza for close to 900 days. Mostly, he simply blended into the fabric of the family.
Oh and he liked Choco, the bird. He laughed at some of the things the bird can do. He greeted Choco in the mornings, held out his phone to hear the bird say, "hello" and make all sorts of phone-related sounds. And, interestingly enough, it seems Elie recognized a word that we didn't. Choco knows an Arabic curse. He also knows the word for "forbidden" or "not allowed" and so when Choco cursed, Elie told him he wasn't allowed to do that. We'll see if we can get Choco to unlearn that one word, but for now, we are filling his head with all sorts of others things, including a whistling sound that Elie makes.
An Israeli man was lightly wounded when a Molotov cocktail was thrown at his car near the West Bank city of Qalqilya. He received medical treatment at the scene of the incident and was then evacuated.
IDF forces are currently patrolling the area in a search for the culprit.
Elie has been home for the last few days; he goes back tomorrow. He's in his room now, all packed. When I saw the news item, I called to him and showed him. This is his turf; his friends out searching at this moment. I wondered what he felt about it, was he worried about his friends (not at all). Did he feel left out of the "excitement."
"This happens all the time. What it means is that tomorrow, the area will be quiet."
He's told us so many stories of his life at the checkpoint. He told us of one Israeli who decided it was cheaper to buy a sheep from the Arabs and smuggle the meat back home, rather than purchase from a supermarket near his home.
He bought a sheep. Slaughtered it. Cut it to pieces and packed it into his car and tried to go through the checkpoint.
"How did they find it?" I asked.
"Do you know what it smelled like?" Elie said with a laugh.
"What did they do?"
"They confiscated the meat...and the car."
"The car?" I asked, feeling sympathy for the smuggler. Take the meat, but the car?
"He used it to smuggle." So what would happen, I asked Elie. They'll fine him and return the car. That was clearly one very expensive meat purchase, and he won't even end up with the meat.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
As reported by Israel National News, the artillery corps is marching in Zichron Yakov - and Elie is there.
Artillery Corps Yearly March in Zichron
Israel's Artillery Corps Thursday are conducting their annual Corps march in Zichron Yaakov. Senior officer of the Artillery Corps Michel Ben Baruch told Army radio that "today is a holiday for the artillery troops."
He described it as the Corps' celebration, together with the State, in honor of the State reaching 60 years.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
It’s funny how we get impressions of things from words people use, only to find that we didn’t have a clue. I went to pick Elie up from his base to begin his shortened vacation. The army gave him five days, but then explained that they needed the soldiers to attend and help with two events – one on Thursday and one on Sunday.
Now, they have decided to pull in additional people so that each will only have to give up one day of their vacation. For Elie, this will be tomorrow. We agreed that I’d meet him at 10:00 this morning outside the base and, as often is the case, I was running a few minutes late. I’d expected him to call and with each passing mile, felt more comfortable.
“I’m on Kvish 6 [Highway 6]” I was going to say, hoping he’d call in just two minutes so I would actually be ON the highway and not within sight of it. Minutes past and I was cruising along – closer and closer.
“I’m two exits away,” was another answer I was ready to give. “Next exit,” I thought to myself with relief. I was now 10 minutes late, but Elie still had not called. As I exited the highway, I finally called Elie to find out that he was actually still at the shooting range somewhere, waiting for the bus to bring him back to the base.
“You’ll get there before me,” he told me when I explained where I was.
“Do you want me to come get you?”
“No, you can’t. But the bus will be here soon. It’s not really a bus…more like a SWAT vehicle.”
And there in my mind was the image of the large black vehicle I’d seen in my younger days, with the big SWAT letters on it. It would have those huge black doors with the shining chrome in the back that would swing open to allow the SWAT team to jump out. They were the cute actors that never got hurt, always saved the day and did it all within the allocated 60 minutes including commercials and promotions.
Give me five minutes and a laptop, and I’m fine. I’d planned in advance and brought along the computer so a delay was like a gift, found time for me. I parked the car, opened the windows, shut the motor and turned on the laptop. Though I thought it rather absurd, I decided to check if there was free wireless. To understand why this is ridiculous, you’d have to see that I was parked atop a hill, overlooking miles of open space. There were some houses in the distance, a Jewish village about a kilometer away, and this army base right in front.
Ever the optimist, I searched for a network and found two that were secure (probably army) and one from nabielya (I assume one of the Arab homes in the distance) that was not secured but the signal was weak.
So, with no wireless, the backup plan was to open Word and clear my head and write. (Take a peak at PaulaSays and you’ll see how often I write things not related to Elie.)
As I was sitting there, my brain full of thoughts, things I need to do, conversations I just had, the book I’m in the middle of reading, who I invited for what upcoming meal, I saw (and heard) this large, square, green, heavily-fortified vehicle pull up and enter the base. Without any real confirmation, I just knew that Elie was inside.
My first thought, as I tried to catch a glimpse of Elie through the small narrow windows that were not only very thick, but also covered with metal gratings, was that it didn’t look like a SWAT vehicle, at least not any I’d seen on TV. A few pairs of eyes peer out – too quick for me to see which, if any, were Elie’s. There was a place on the side with some sort of device that can be rotated. Even with my lack of training I can tell it’s for the soldiers within to shoot through if they came under attack.
There’s no question this thing is bullet-proof and probably more. I’m sure Elie’s been in it hundreds of times already. It’s funny that it should leave me feeling so…what is the right word…so impressed? No, that’s not it. Not surprised either. Intimidated? No, not in the least.
Serious. Maybe that’s it. It’s another reminder that this is not a game my son is playing. He isn’t just dressing up. To need such a vehicle, the army must feel that the threat against its soldiers is serious. No, I’m sure they don’t come under attack on a regular basis and using this vehicle is probably more for prevention. I think that’s the point of using it. It tells those who would think of trying to ambush them that there is really no reason to even try, no benefit. Why bother? It is seriously fortified, seriously bullet-proof, serious protection for our soldiers. The message has been delivered – see our soldiers in this vehicle, strong, sturdy, impenetrable. I can live with that.
This big green vehicle entered the base, a place I cannot go, while I waited outside. There was a gentle breeze; uncharacteristically cool for the season and the sky was almost solid clouds. It had rained on the way there. The base is located at a high point, as most bases are, and the view is outstanding – for miles around, I could see the beautiful land. Not a bad way to spend a few minutes.
The holiday of Sukkot, the one we are celebrating now, is very much about getting outside and understanding that no matter how strong the houses we build, we are, at our core, vulnerable.
During this holiday, for a week, we move from our seriously built homes to the sukkah, temporary dwellings that shake with the wind and leak through the branches that cover the opening to the sky. There is little shelter from the cold of night, the heat of day. We eat and sleep in these temporary dwellings to remind us that we cannot be safe all the time, that ultimately we are, as we have always been, at the mercy of God and whatever He has planned for us. And yet, we move into these flimsy things as a message. We trust You, God. Under Your protection, we are the safest of all.
And that’s when the irony and the parallel hit me. Elie returned from the army today, in a serious, sturdy, strong vehicle that has been tested to withstand all manner of attacks – by man. For all its strength, it is just a vehicle, as our homes are just bricks and cement and wood and whatever.
When we returned home, the first thing Elie did (as he often does) is head for the refrigerator where, to his delight, he found steak and stuffing and more. He warmed it all up, took it out to the sukkah and sat down to eat. There was joy in seeing my son in our family sukkah, having him home safe. And yes, there is joy in knowing that when he needs to be, there’s this SWAT-like vehicle that doesn’t look like any SWAT vehicle I ever imagined. Impressive, serious, sturdy and offering great protection. It is the message of the vehicle the army used to bring my son back to base, and it is the message of the Sukkah that we have been commanded to use each Sukkot.
Happy sukkot – where we learn that the most serious, sturdy protection comes from Above.
Monday, October 13, 2008
We have two dogs, but I can explain. Never mind, it will sound crazy no matter what I write. We don't have cats. Well, there are the two neighborhood cats that like to sneak into our house because my oldest daughter fed them when they were kittens, but we refuse to acknowledge them.
We have fish - but their are tame and easy, and we have birds. Oh, do we have birds. We have hand-fed cockatiels and, as of last week, we have an African gray parrot (Jacko) that Elie doesn't know about. They are big birds, beautiful. Ours is named Choco. Choco is quite amazing. He makes dozens of sounds, says many words in Hebrew (like "What's happening" and "Kiss" and "Forbidden" as he waves his leg in the air as one would caution a child).
He answers the phone ("Hello" and makes the sound of someone hanging up) when it rings and more. He says, " Choco, come" and imitates my youngest son's annoying cluck...the one that only he and his father can make (leave it to the bird to pick that one up) and this morning, he actually laughed. Ok, he didn't laugh, but he certainly made the sound of someone laughing. He has almost as many ring-tones as my phone. The previous owner must have been a smoker (the bird can pretend to cough and sniffle too).
Elie is not the most animal-friendly person. His attitude is that if he agrees to leave them alone, they should have the common decency to leave him alone too. He isn't cruel to them, he just doesn't want to be bothered and I'm thinking he's not going to love this new bird. He'll probably laugh when the bird asks him what is happening or imitates someone laughing and, if I know my Elie, he'll try to teach it all sorts of creative sounds and phrases (may God be kind to me on this one).
And, if I know Elie, and I think I do, he will look at the bird (and us) as if we have lost our minds. It too is a bit of a game he'll play. It will amuse him and give him something to smile about. So...for now, if you see him, don't tell him. I've actually managed not to say anything . I can't wait to see Elie's face. Without doubt, he'll think - "here we go again."
Choco- wait till you meet Elie and Elie...oh do we have a loud surprise for you.
Elie IS getting off for the five intermediate days of the holiday...but not quite. He'll come home on Wednesday (and yes, I've arranged to go to my client so that I can bring him home even though I typically don't work during this period - but the client has an urgent deadline...and there is the fact that Elie's base is right there...so...).
On Thursday, instead of the family trip we'd planned - the one Elie specifically requested and I felt was a bit of a consolation for his not having gone on vacation with us - Elie will instead travel to Beit Totchan, the Gunner's House and national memorial for the fallen of the artillery unit. He's supposed to be there most of the day. Thursday gone.
He'll return home Thursday evening, though one of the other commanders lives nearby and so that boys have arranged to get together and relax a little in the evening. We'll all have the Shabbat together and then the other full day we would have had together - Sunday, the army has told Elie that he and the other soldiers need to go to another city to take part in something there.
It's a very Israeli thing. First, during this intermediate week, Israel celebrates a holiday. While you can work, many Israelis don't. Even those who do, recognize it is a holiday and either take vacation or work only half days. The other days are dedicated to living. We go to the national parks; we get outside and just enjoy. There is both the symbolism of the holiday and the last breathes of summer fading away. We celebrate both. It's been long and hot - now it's cooler and so beautiful outside.
Having the soldiers "out there" is both a security advantage and a social one. Growing up in America, I don't remember ever seeing soldiers in the street, except, perhaps, on the 4th of July, Independence Day. Otherwise, never.
Soldiers are an integral part of this country - again for security reasons as well as social ones so this week, instead of being with us, as planned, Elie will be spending more time than expected, "out there." We'll still go as a family, and wherever we go, as always, we'll see soldiers. And some mother out there will see my son and think of her son, as I'll be seeing her son and thinking of Elie.
Elie didn't sound upset about it and that was a comfort. He's accepted that the army will do what it wills. He's happy to have a chance to relax with his fellow commanders. Considering he is there with them so often, it's nice that he chooses in his free time to be there as well. It's also nice to know that he feels the strength and independence enough to not need to be home.
It's a parent lesson I learned long ago - if you want your children to be independent when they grow older - hold them tight and long when they are little. The more you hold them, the more confidence they have to go, knowing you'll be there when they come back. This past Shabbat, my youngest daughter was outside the synagogue playing with her friends while I was attending services. In the middle of a rather important prayer (one that you don't interrupt), she came to my side, reached in the "green" bag of goodies to take out her water, kissed my arm and left.
My heart swelled at that moment and my eyes literally filled with tears. That is the purest of love messages that a child can give to a parent - a kiss not begged or bartered. My youngest son at 12 is just now outgrowing the need to come over and give a hug now or then. I don't remember the last time he did it - but it's a common thing for a child to do and all my children, even Elie, though he'd cringe to hear of it, did it when they were young. And that has always been one of my greatest treasures as a mother.
Elie's making plans to go to be with his friends after a day spent in the army when he expected to be home - is much like my daughter's kiss. It's a message - I don't have to come home...because I know home is there for me. You'll be there when I need you and so I'm free to fly now.
As babies and young children, my kids were in my arms all the time - I can't tell you how many times people suggested that I would be spoiling them or that they didn't need to be held (like when they were asleep). I held them then because I needed it as much and sometimes more than they did. Now, Elie needs to know home is here...we are here. He talks about the next rotation and what it will bring and one factor for him is how often he'll come home.
There is talk of his being a commander of the commander's course - and he likes that idea "even though" it might mean his being home less. I want to tell him that it doesn't have to be a factor - he should do what he wants, but it is a factor and my telling him that it doesn't have to be may make him feel worse rather than better.
Tonight starts the holiday of Sukkot. A boy from the neighborhood...oh wait - no, a young man from the neighborhood who was in Elie's unit previously is going to visit his friends on the base and attend a brief ceremony there. He offered to take something to Elie and Elie asked for cookies "or the ones you make with brownies and cookies together." I sent that and a bottle of ice tea along.
I'll pick Elie up on Wednesday and bring him home. We won't be going on a family trip on Thursday - at least not with Elie. It seems almost cruel to go to the Sea of Galilee with him after he asked to go specifically himself, but we'll see. We'll have the weekend together - Shabbat as a a family in our Sukkah. This Friday night, I'll watch my husband bless each of our children and I'll thank God for the time we have together.
The army makes its rules and changes them. Perhaps the greatest of life's lessons is one that we are all learning now. Life (and the army) makes plans - and they change. It is our to accept and thrive or not accept it and suffer. I'm so proud to have a son who has learned to accept and thrive even prosper from it. Elie will have time with his family this long weekend. Thanks to the army's sudden shift, Elie will also have an evening with his friends and two days with "Israel."
If you see a beautiful boy with blue eyes wearing a blue beret, black combat boots and that grin I love - say hi to my son...and if I see your son...I'll say hi to him too.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Like most years, we spent almost the entire day in the synagogue. From early in the morning, until after the day has faded away, we stand, we sit, we pray, we reflect and we come to terms with how we have behaved over the past year. We weren't patient enough with our children, our spouse, our friends. We assumed too often, didn’t excuse nearly enough. We jumped when we should have been patient, and sat back when we should have jumped. There were evil things that happened, and we answered them with silence. And there were good things that happened, and perhaps we answered these too with silence. We expected too much of our children, our friends, didn't give enough, or simply didn't act as we should have.
We hurt someone and now, months later, don't know how to undo the damage we have done. All this, ironically enough, isn't something we set out to solve on Yom Kippur because this holiday is about us and God, not us and our fellow human beings. It's about healing our relationship with God and not with man and so we first seek forgiveness from others - the better to come before God and ask His forgiveness. “Look”, we say to God, “we did all these terrible things to others and we’ve asked forgiveness or we have forgiven. Can’t you please forgive us too?”
It doesn't always work. Sometimes, we can't forgive or ask forgiveness and so we have to come to peace with that decision too. And again, we turn to God and say, “Look, that’s the difference between us. We are only human and we tried. But you are God. Can’t you please forgive us even if we didn’t fix all that we did wrong?”
I spoke to my oldest daughter before the fast. She's old enough and mature enough for me to say what I can't say to the others. Elie would put up with no more than a brief conversation and questions about when he would be on the check point. There is no serious talk of forgiveness or of love - these are the things that go unsaid to a 21-year-old (at least if he is male, I'm thinking).
I have anger inside me towards people who I believe have done things that were wrong. Yom Kippur is about letting that anger go - for my own good, if not theirs. It doesn't mean allowing them to wrong you in the future. It doesn't mean opening yourself up to further betrayal, but it does mean getting on and accepting and that's much of what I did before and during the holiday.
During one conversation with a friend, we discussed the messages we want to send our children. To my daughter, my message was that no matter what she could ever do, I am her mother and she will always be in my heart, my mind, my life. This was a message that I thought about on Yom Kippur. One incredibly beautiful prayer lists many thing we want from God, and reasons why we feel, despite our actions, he should give us these things. Each line starts with the simply words, Avinu Malkenu, “Our Father, Our King.”
I spoke to Elie before and after the Fast. He was very lucky. Because so many of the boys stayed on base, they were able to better share the hours and so each soldier was on guard for only 8 hours and off for the remaining 17 hours of the fast. Elie started the fast on base and had time to rest after the evening services, before he was taken to the check point.
He was on for most of the night, during the cool hours and before hunger or thirst was an issue. Even when the sun came out, it was cool and easy. Early, early in the morning, around the time I was getting up and going to the synagogue, Elie returned to base and went to sleep. When he awakened several hours later, he went to services and there he remained until the end of Yom Kippur. The army sent the rabbi of his platoon to lead the services and be there if any issues came up.
After dark, Elie broke his fast, rested a bit, and went back on patrol. If you had to think of a schedule, you couldn't have come up with a better one than the one Elie received. He's young and strong; the fast went easily for him.
As for the rest of his schedule this holiday month, he won't be home Monday night for the first day of the holiday of Sukkot, but he will be home for the intermediate days - and we'll do something then.
My final word on Yom Kippur is that having a son in the army brings new meaning to your prayers. They are more directed, more focused, more immediate. There are many beautiful and meaningful ways to express your love of God and love of children. What Yom Kippur does is bring a sense of urgency to it all. Now, as the gates of Heaven close and our destiny is decided, there is a sense of fear as well.
As the day faded, I stood with hundreds and realized that in these moments, God is finalizing His decisions for what will be our future for the next year. It is the time of the holiday I fear the most and love the most. We've spent something like 23 hours largely together, these several hundred people and me. We are united in this one goal, to get our message to the Heavens in the moments we have left. In a very symbolic analogy, we read of the Gates of Heaven closing and it is for us to crystallize our last messages.
All that will be, has been decided and now it has been stamped and closed. It's a scary thought, an awe-inspiring one. Moments before the holiday, we learned that a friend’s father had passed away. He was elderly and it was expected, but the grief was no less real for his son. I thought of his father and our interpretation of his death. In Judaism, we believe that all that will be in the coming year was already decided and it is for us to live it, discover it, and perhaps change it with the right combination of good deeds and prayer (and even if we do succeed in changing it, the “catch” is that God knew in advance that we would succeed). Last year, God decided that this friend’s father would die this year and for his good deeds, he was given up to the last possible moment before that decree was enforced.
I thought of this too, as the sun was fading, the light streaking across the skies. In moments, it would be dark. A slightly different version of "Our Father, our King," is recited. This one is about acceptance. We no longer ask for God to “write” us in the Book of Life; now we ask that He “seal” this decision. Please. Hear us. If not our words, than reach into our souls. Remember our deeds, our intentions, our prayers . Let them mitigate what has been decided.
In those final moments, I thought of each of my children and what I so desperately want for them this year. Some were very personal and I won't write them here but I will write about what I asked for Elie because it is likely what tens of thousands of other mothers asked for their sons, soldiers or not. I asked, in the simplest way, for life. That’s all, and that’s everything. Let him not get hurt this year. Let him be safe. Let him be happy but even more, let him not get hurt.
As Elie stood at the check point, serving his land and his people, I believe God protects those who protect Israel. Whatever this coming year will bring, let it be for good and not for bad. Let it bring health and peace. Simple requests and yet, I've always prayed for health for my family and others, and I've always said the words asking that we be granted peace, but I'm not sure I ever understood the concept of peace until Elie went into the army. Peace is not just about a lack of violence, it's about so much more as well. Peace is about having no need to run after the holiday to check to make sure nothing happened. It's about not checking your phone for messages. It’s about not getting phone calls in the middle of the night and wondering why your heart is still beating when you are sure the fright should have killed you.
I can't imagine a time when Israel won't have an army and sons that must spend years of their lives protecting. But maybe, if we are even lucky enough to reach peace, we will look at the army as a time when our sons will be strengthened physically but not endangered. For now, that time is far off and little is being done to bring it forward.
A few days before the Yom Kippur holiday, I was talking with a friend who has long since finished doing his yearly reserve duty. We talked about Elie and about the recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem. I told him about the attack, as Elie described it to me and about how the soldiers had reacted correctly, and as trained. I told him about the injuries and about the ones who had neutralized the terrorist. How the soldiers quickly set up a safety perimeter in case there was someone else waiting to attack; how they saw to their own even before police and ambulance arrived and how they stood, guns loaded, protecting each other.
"I wish for Elie that he never has to kill anyone," my friend said. Yes, on Yom Kippur, we pray for many things. Life and health and livelihood. We pray that we live in dignity and have the repect of others. We pray for our country and our soldiers and for the soldiers who are still in captivity - Gilad Shalit, Ron Arad, and the others. There is no formal prayer wishing your son will never have an opportunity to practice what he has learned. No formal way to ask God that he never need to shoot a weapon of any type beyond the training sessions. But this was a new prayer. If Elie has to kill to protect, I hope he will be able to do it, and live with the decision and the need, but even more, as my friend said, I hope he never will have that need.
I pray that this year's Yom Kippur fast will bring to all of our people peace and safety, health and so much more - to our people, to our sons, to our army.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Now, standing on the check point, he often uses English to communicate with some of the Arabs who don't know how (or do not want) to speak in Hebrew. No problem. Elie steps up, speak to me in English, he tells them. During the last presidential elections 4 years ago, Elie was 17 years old and voting wasn't an issue. Now, at age 21, he faces his first opportunity to vote in the United States elections. For all that he is an Israeli soldier; he is also an American citizen. I believe that although I have raised him to call Israel his home, he understands that there remains a connection with the country of his birth.
He will vote because that is the way we have raised him. The right to vote is what sets us apart from so many other nations. With this single act, we celebrate our freedom and tell others our opinion. Listen to me, the vote says, I have a right to my stand and here I make it. This is the person I choose to represent me.
We downloaded the forms for Elie to sign, filled out his social security and his last address in America. It's a house he still remembers. The big backyard, the blue siding of the house. The river that ran in the woods far behind the house. I keep his social security card along with his birth certificate and those of his older sister and middle brother in a special binder on the shelf. I pulled this down to get the numbers and with it found not only the birth certificates, but the footprints taken in the moments after they were born.
Those tiny feet, along with my right thumbprint, were placed on the "certificates" and given to me when I was discharged from the hospital. My older three children sat and laughed about who had the fatter foot, the smaller one. It was all so funny until one asked why they don't do the same thing here and that's when reality hit.
"They don't steal babies in Israel," I blurted out without thinking.
That was the reason my baby's footprint was put on the paper. Maybe it was less sinister. Maybe it was because they were afraid of confusing the infants in the nursery, despite the wrist bands placed on each child in the delivery room. But deep down, I always believed, always feared. It is any parent's greatest nightmare and it was with great joy I left that fear behind in America.
Whatever the reason, I don't have footprints for the two children born in Israel. After we’d completed the forms and joked about the footprints, we put the social security cards and the birth certificates back up on the shelf. Elie filed his petition to vote in the upcoming elections and will now consider his options. He doesn't live in the United States and most likely never will.
There is the American economy. This is an important factor, even for those of us who live in Israel. When the American economy starts to go bad, the impact is felt far away, here in Israel and all around the world.
There is the issue of social rights and responsibilities. Elie knows little of this and cannot understand even more. Our country provides health care for all its citizens. A doctor is a call away and a swipe of a card from our national health insurance. The visit costs less than $2.00 and for Elie, as part of his national service, costs nothing. The army sees to all his medical needs, though we insisted on taking him to our local doctor at one point and to the dentist at a different time. Elie cannot weigh who would be better for social issues in America.
Elie was raised to accept people as they are, no matter what country they come from, what language they speak, or the color of their skin. The only hesitation he has is one born of need. Elie grew up at a time when buses and malls were blowing up constantly in our country and though this has been dramatically reduced since we built the security fence, Elie and his unit can tell you that we are by no means safe from terrorist attacks (It could have been Elie).
And so Elie and all my children know to watch who gets on the bus, who enters the café. Are they dressed in such a way that they could be hiding an explosives belt? Do they make you nervous? Get off the bus. I’ll pay for another one. Get off the bus.
This issue of social rights, ironically, blends with the most important issue for us. Security and the need to be strong against terrorism. These are especially important in a country like Israel, but also an important factor in all free countries because freedom and democracy pose the greatest threat to our enemies. They use religious coercion and domination as the weapons of their battle and standing up for the values we in Israel support is important.
We are a democratic country; so much so, we allow our enemies into our government and from the podium of our parliament, they have the freedom to call for policies that would destroy us.
Our current enemies, those who pose the most immediate threat lie to our north, where Elie was stationed for several months. This is Hizbollah land, where according to their leader Hassan Nasrallah, "We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death."
Our enemies lie to the northeast. This is Syria. Elie spent many months on the Golan Heights, including some tense days waiting to see how the Syrians would react after Israel sent planes to destroy a building widely believed to be the beginnings of a nuclear reactor. Elie will vote for the man who takes the threat of Syria seriously.
Our enemies lie further to the east. This is Iran, led by a madman who promises that he will do all he can to accomplish in minutes more than what Adolf Hitler accomplished in six years of war. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made it clear in words and actions that he is after a nuclear bomb and that his goal is to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Believe him.
Elie will vote for the man least likely to allow this horror to happen. And our enemies lie in many places over the face of the earth. Some are active in their hatred of Israel, others comfortable in their complacency. Elie, like all Jews living in Israel, must think long and hard before making his choice for the next American president, but one key element will be the man's knowledge of the threats we face and his commitment to our security and our future.
Elie, like most Jews living in Israel, will vote for someone who will stand firm against Iran and understand the dangers we face and are likely to face in the future. Elie has never voted before - except in one small local election that had little real impact on more than one political party's internal listing. He's been "old enough" to carry a gun and defend this country for some time and has worn the uniform of his adopted country with pride and honor.
He'll vote in the elections for the highest office in the country of his birth, as is his right, because be believes that a strong Israel makes an important ally for the United States and because a strong America makes an important ally for Israel. And Elie understands, after more than a year in the army of Israel, that those who seek to destroy the foundations of democracy and freedom started their war on our shores and took them to the United States many years ago.
What starts in Israel, often shakes the rest of the world in its own time. That's the truth of 9/11, that's the truth of the Iranian threat, and that’s the truth of what is at stake in the US elections.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
But for now, the image in my mind is of the back of Elie, walking to the car with his young sister following him. From where I was standing, I couldn't see his face, only the uniform and the back of his head. Strapped to his back was the gun, the blue beret hanging perilously (as it always does) off his shoulder, and this little girl with her backpack following him to the car. There is such pride in this image - it's a regular, back-to-school day after three days of holidays. Elie leaves to go back to the army in a short while. He'll be there for Yom Kippur. He'll fast, as he did on Tisha B'Av - I can only hope he'll pull the night shift so it will be easier and cooler during the fast.
They laughed together, Elie and his little sister, about something he had said and she turned, threw me a kiss and climbed happily into the car. She's come to accept his coming home and his going too. She's come to accept that there are times she can call him, and more times that she can't. And she's come to accept that when he's home, he too has a need for her and so he will toss her in the air, even if she says she doesn't want him too. He'll play rough and tickle and tease her, until she acts like it is too much, and then he'll soften and comfort her.
She accepts that if she cuts herself, maybe Elie should check it and put the bandage on her. She accepts that he will tell her what to do, give her more chores than I do, and expect to be obeyed. He will give her unconditional love and attention when he does, and go off to his room when he needs that time (and she knows she shouldn't bother him).
The other major post-chag reflection has to do with Elie himself and his feelings about the checkpoints. It's a hard assignment for a young man. He's put on our borders and we are, essentially, a nation in conflict with our neighbors. We put these young men there and it is not easy. Elie told me of several conflicts. None that came to violence, but ones that came close enough to cause my heart to flutter, just a bit with worry.
More than once, he's had to raise his gun as a message that he has orders to protect and that means searching someone's car or demanding that a non-citizen show permits that allow them not only to enter, but to enter our cities with a specific vehicle. While Elie was home, someone from the army called him several times. One Arab had a permit to enter, but not with the truck he was trying to drive through. He was very angry at Elie and at some point even threatening. Elie called it in, and was told that not only was the driver NOT allowed to enter with the car, but that Elie should confiscate the permit as well.
This effectively meant that this man could not enter Israel to work, which infuriated him even more. The calls to Elie that came on the day before the holidays were to ask Elie for more information and the location of where the permit could be found.
In 1948, when Israel came into existence, the new state offered people within its borders citizenship. Many Arabs chose to accept this and many did not. Lands have changed hands over time, mostly as a result of war and this has included a shift in population control. Where once Jordan and Egypt controlled these areas, today Israel has control. Until some more permanent settlement is made, Israel contains Arabs who are citizens and Arabs who are not. Not only do we have people who would wish that we didn't exist living within our borders, many of these people have the right to vote and so elect members who believe, as they do, that the very country in whose parliament they sit, has no right to exist. Thus our democracy is stengthened, even by those who have little respect for the democratic principles that give them a voice to call for our destruction.
Those that are citizens carry the blue identity card, like mine. Those who are not carry a different color identification and are restricted. It's a hard concept for someone who grew up in the United States to understand. How can you let one person in one car pass through with a wave and stop a second car and search it thoroughly simply because one is a Jew and one an Arab? Or one's grandfather chose to accept the political realities of the time while the other's grandfather chose to hope that his Arab brothers would succeed and destroy the new state?
This concept of judging someone by their appearnace is as repugnant as if it were an African American and a white American, no? Would I have tolerated such an action in the United States? The answer, most definitely is no. But then again, I doubt 97% of terrorist attacks in the United States are carried out by African Americans, as 97% (if not more) terrorist attacks in Israel are carried out by Arabs. Worse, the last four attacks in Israel were carried out by Israeli Arabs. Those who carry the same identity card as I do and have the right to travel freely, as I do. Every month, they are given health benefits, social benefits and more.
In addition to these four attacks, which have killed or wounded many dozens, in the past few weeks, an Arab woman has thrown acid in the face of two soldiers, blinding one in one eye, and injuring the other in the face as well. Today, soldiers at the Hawara check point caught an Arab terrorist with two small pipe bombs. An army sapper safely detonated them, and no one was hurt. This time.
Mexicans do not have free access to enter the United States, and yet the Americans do not anticipate acid and knife attacks, firebombs and stoning attacks, on a regular basis as we do. North Koreans cannot freely enter South Korea, and yet neither side expects regular attempts to launch suicide attacks against their citizens. Where there is danger, even if it is only to the economy and not physical danger as we experience here, countries restrict the movement of non-citizens within their borders.
In our country, Elie stands between these non-citizens and our cities. Elie, like so many of our soldiers, has to check to make sure that their need for humanitarian aide or their desire to work in our cities and factories, isn't a guise for doing damage, as in the many cases of Arab ambulances caught with weapons or the young Arab woman who planned to commit suicide in the very hospital that had treated her in the past.
Elie has a job - search, confirm intent, and get them out as fast as you can. Elie's latest orders restrict him to a five-minute limit. Search the ambulance and the people as fast as you can. You have 5 minutes from the time you see them approach to the time you must release them to continue. If you can't search it thoroughly in 5 minutes, let it go, even at the risk that it poses a danger to our citizens.
Elie searched a car the other day. It was a rental car driven by an Israeli Arab. As he was about to release the car, one of the soldiers found a bullet. Elie looked at the Arab. The Arab looked at Elie with a resigned look. Both knew what this meant. It took the soldiers hours to take the car apart enough to confirm there were no explosives, no guns.
"What did he say?" I asked Elie of the Arab who had driven the car there.
"What could he say? He knew what it meant." He had to wait. "We gave him coffee and told him to wait. Bet he was sorry he rented it."
Yes, that's what this is all about. This time, they didn't find more than the bullet but how could they know without searching? Elie has found guns; what if there had been a gun and not just a bullet?
Elie told me about an Israeli bus driver who was enraged that Elie delayed the bus full of Israeli passengers. Elie had orders to get on the front of the bus, ask the driver if everything was OK, then walk the full length of the bus observing various things. He was to speak to some of the passengers, engaging them in conversation, just a bit. "How are you today?" or "Everything OK?"
When Elie would reach the end of the bus, all the way to the back, he was to turn around and walk back up the bus until he reached the back door, and there he would exit. This was an order from his commanding officer. A few years back, a security guard in Jerusalem got on a bus, did a quick, routine walk-through and got off the bus. He didn't notice the Arab with the explosive belt. Or maybe he did, but didn't think he looked suspicious. The guard got off the bus. The bus started to move. And then, the bus exploded.
This time, as Elie entered the bus, the driver was annoyed. Maybe he had a fight with is wife in the morning. Maybe there was traffic. Whatever it was, the soldier in the green uniform was an easy target, "Can't you see everything is fine? Do you need to do this now? What do you see here"
Everyone on the bus understood the need, except the driver, who gave Elie a hard time.
"What happened when the driver yelled at you?" I asked Elie, anxious to find some way to undo the hurt, the frustration.
"Even the people on the bus were yelling at the bus driver to just shut up." Elie told me in frustration. "I wanted to tell him what I saw was an idiot."
"What did you do?" I asked him, thinking, oh no, here we go again. First the idiots from Tel Aviv comment, now the bus driver. "You didn't say that, did you?" I asked. Remember that Elie is 21-years old. Remember what you were like when you were that age? Had you learned restraint? Had you learned diplomacy? Or were you like me, like most 21-year-olds?
"No, I didn't call him an idiot. I did what I'm supposed to do." He told me. "I walked up and down the bus, talked to a few people and got off."
"And what did the driver do?"
"He finally apologized to me." But there was no joy or triumph in this, no sense that the wrong had been made right.
"Most people are very nice," Elie told me.
"What about the Arabs?" I asked him. There is supposedly no ethnic profiling in the United States, where 97% of the terror-related attacks aren't done by young, single Arab men and women who dress a certain way or behave a certain way. In Israel, there is and there must be.
"They understand. They know we have no choice."
Yes, so long as there are those who would blow up a bus or a mall or a cafe, Elie and the soldiers have no choice. In the last few months, two Arabs have taken bulldozers and used them to attack innocent civilians in the middle of Jerusalem. Do you think we don't watch bulldozers more carefully today? Do you think Elie's eyes didn't look at the driver when we passed a bulldozer? Wouldn't you look?
We had guests for several meals during the holiday and Elie's presence often triggered discussion about the army, army life, guns and weaponry. He carried his gun with him when he went to the synagogue and locked it in his room when he was home.
Though he talked about the army, much of the time he tried to get away from it all and just be who he is. There was much laughter in the house, much joking around. Elie and his younger sister were constantly wrestling, done with smiles and much squeaking on her part.
Elie fixed his brother's bicycle, did shopping, slept, talked, ate. In short, he simply got a chance to unwind and not be the "Commander" on base. Time was what it was, at least for a few days.
I drove Elie back to his base the morning after Rosh Hashana ended with two boxes of homemade brownies and the hope that he'll make it home for at least part of the upcoming Sukkot holiday. But ultimately, what stays in my mind is that image of Elie in his uniform, walking to the car, with his sister calling out to him and following him to the car. Him with his gun strapped to his back and the beret on his shoulder; her with her school backpack and long ponytail.
He opened the door for her as he answered her question and she climbed into the back seat. "Drive carefully," I called out, as I always do.
And later, when I dropped him at the base and it was his turn to put his backpack on his back, I called out, as I always do, "be careful. See you soon."
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